Certain classic musicals — “My Fair Lady,” “Guys and Dolls,” “Hello, Dolly!”, “West Side Story,” “The Music Man” — are so familiar that we risk taking them for granted, losing sight of their greatness, and considering them not much more than aural wallpaper.
“Fiddler on the Roof” falls squarely into that category. After all, virtually everyone can sing at least a few snatches of “Tradition,” “If I Were a Rich Man,” “Matchmaker, Matchmaker,” “To Life,” or “Sunrise, Sunset.” (You’re doing it right now, aren’t you?)
So to realize the full potency of “Fiddler,” a production must communicate what each of those memorable songs means to the characters who are singing them. What’s at stake in “Fiddler” is much more far-reaching than, say, whether Dolly Gallagher Levi can snare Horace Vandergelder, or Sky Masterson can win his bet with Nathan Detroit, or Eliza Doolittle can pass for a lady under the tutelage of Henry Higgins. What’s at stake in “Fiddler” is survival — of a family, a community, a people — and we need to feel a sense of urgency throughout.
That bar is often, but not always, cleared in the touring production of “Fiddler on the Roof” that has arrived at the Emerson Colonial Theatre.
The timing is tough for this staging, because any “Fiddler” is bound to feel a bit inauthentic when it so closely follows the magnificent, all-Yiddish version by the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene that closed off-Broadway in January. But this national tour of Bartlett Sher’s 2015 Broadway revival has its own strengths, including a framing device that blows some of the dust off “Fiddler” by underscoring the connection between dispossessed people of all kinds, in all times and places. (Sher’s fluid direction has been re-created for this tour by Sari Ketter.)
The production at the Colonial also illustrates, once again, the inherently strong bones of “Fiddler” itself. Joseph Stein’s book remains a model of tightly constructed storytelling and vivid characterization, and neither the music by Jerry Bock nor the lyrics by Sheldon Harnick have lost their power to delight or stir. The ensemble generates a swirling energy in the big dance numbers, and the portrayals of Tevye’s three older daughters Tzeitel, Hodel, and Chava — by, respectively, Kelly Gabrielle Murphy, Ruthy Froch, and Noa Luz Barenblat, all of whom sing beautifully — are among the best I’ve ever seen.
But this “Fiddler” is marred by weaknesses in other key roles, including the most important one of all. That, of course, is Tevye, a dairyman who lives with his wife Golde and their daughters (five altogether) in the Jewish village of Anatevka in czarist Russia, facing the ever-present danger of anti-Semitic pogroms.
Tevye is one of the great roles in all of musical theater: part everyman, engaged in an ongoing dialogue with God about the riddles of existence; part beleaguered underdog, whipsawed by social and economic circumstances that make him feel as precarious as, well, a fiddler on the roof; and part larger-than-life dynamo, with a personality that enables him to command the respect of other villagers and even the Russian constable whose jurisdiction includes Anatevka.
With so much emotional territory to traverse, it’s a role that can tempt a performer into over-acting — a temptation, alas, that Yehezkel Lazarov seldom resists in his overly hammy performance as Tevye at the Colonial.
Lazarov, an Israeli actor, definitely has his moments, bringing a galvanic force to certain scenes. But too often that spills into a scenery-chewing excess that keeps his Tevye from moving us as deeply as he must. Yes, theatricality is part of Tevye’s persona, but it is his soulfulness that defines him, and that is what is sometimes lacking here. (Remember, what Tevye describes in “If I Were a Rich Man” as “the sweetest thing of all” is the chance to “have the time that I lack/To sit in the synagogue and pray” and “discuss the learned books with the holy men.”)
Several other performances are not distinctive enough. Maite Uzal’s too-mirthless take on Golde results in a one-dimensional portrayal, and Carol Beaugard’s portrayal of the usually-risible matchmaker Yente falls strangely flat. As Perchik, the radical university student who falls in love with Hodel, Nik Casaula’s vocal shortcomings keep “Now I Have Everything,” his duet with Froch, from soaring.
Acquitting themselves better are Nick Siccone as Motel the tailor, a pipsqueak who taps into inner resources he didn’t know he had as he persuades Tevye to let him and Tzeitel marry; Jonathan von Mering as Lazar Wolf, the jilted butcher; and Jack O’Brien as Fyedka, the Russian soldier whose romance with Chava brings Tevye to the breaking point.
Almost, that is. The enduring message of “Fiddler on the Roof,” and a big part of the reason this remarkable musical still speaks to us nearly six decades after it premiered, is that resilience can carry us through life’s trials — and that there’s nothing more resilient than love.
FIDDLER ON THE ROOF
Book by Joseph Stein. Music by Jerry Bock. Lyrics by Sheldon Harnick.
Original direction by Bartlett Sher. Direction recreated by Sari Ketter.
Presented by Broadway In Boston. At Emerson Colonial Theatre. Through March 8. Tickets start at $44.50. 888-616-0272, www.BroadwayInBoston.com